Movers, Shakers, Music Lovers: Matt Kibbe, President at FreeThePeople.org

Since our first interview with Politico’s Jake Sherman in January 2014, HeadCount has been taking a deeper, bipartisan look at the consultants, reporters and political activists who make and report the news in New York, Washington, D.C. and across the country — and we’re talking to them about (what else?) music. It turns out that the people who shape the political and reporting landscape are as passionate about music as they are about their jobs. In this election year, we’ll continue to talk with them about the bands they love, and the shows that changed their lives. All interviews in this series conducted by HeadCount Board Member Gordon Hensley (@GordonHensleyDC)

Today we chat with Matt Kibbe, who just launched a new post-partisan grassroots organization, FreethePeople.org, which will defend civil libertarian values in the popular culture. He recently served as Senior Advisor to a Rand Paul presidential SuperPAC, Concerned American Voters. In 2004, he founded FreedomWorks, a major national grassroots organization closely tied to the tea party. There, he served as president until June of 2015. 

Gordon Hensley: So, here’s an obvious key stat: You’ve seen over 100 Grateful Dead shows. How did this all unfold for you?

Matt Kibbe: Well, I pretty much did everything backwards and I didn’t actually see a Dead show until I had a job, when I was about 24. I went with some friends from the Republican National Committee (RNC) and had a blast. Cumulatively I saw most of my shows in 1989 and 1990, and a lot in ’93 until the end.

Considering your libertarian background and having served as CEO of FreedomWorks – perhaps the most prominent national grass roots organization devoted to free markets and individual liberty — how does this all fit into your deep interest in the Grateful Dead?

I once wrote a paper comparing Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead culture to Friedrich Hayek’s understanding of community and spontaneous order. And I think “Shakedown Street” and the Dead parking lot scene is a beautiful case study in how markets work without a set of rules imposed from the top down.  And to me the Grateful Dead community is essentially my model for how I always viewed community organizing, and even the Tea Party movement. As a leaderless movement, it functioned on a set of values and a set of unwritten rules. I learned so much from attending Dead shows, and honoring the mutual respect and shared values of a community not planned or designed by the band, but by the community at-large. To me, that is a classically liberal view of how the world actually works through voluntary cooperation.

Did you get out to California and Chicago to attend the Fare Thee Well shows?    

I did – I went to all the Chicago shows and managed to see one of the California shows. The thing that was the most striking to me was how robust and sustainable the Grateful Dead community has been since Jerry died, and it was especially interesting that nothing had really changed, and we hadn’t really taken 20 years off. And there was still that sense of community with everyone smiling, and respecting the incredible institution, tradition and music of the Grateful Dead.

One of the reasons for this extended longevity, I think, is that Trey and Phish helped fill that 20-year void with an active means of the community staying and growing together. I realize that not all Deadheads are Phish heads and vice-versa, but I don’t think the 50-year celebration would have been the same if Phish didn’t exist, and if Trey wasn’t on that stage. Trey was a key component — essentially a generational hand-off that had older guys like me hanging out with younger Phish heads and third and even a fourth generation of young people who hadn’t really been there for the original Dead and Phish movements.

What were your favorite and most memorable Fare Thee Well highlights?

I think the last two shows were pure energy and really something special, and one of the things I liked best about Trey’s playing was that he didn’t step on the music and never tried to ‘over-prove’ himself – he had a deft, very professional and very respectful touch. This was essential to the feel of the sound, and considering how many critics there would be comparing him to Jerry, I think he did a great job putting his own imprimatur on the music.

Unlike many Grateful Dead fans, you went on to get into Phish and hit a bunch of their shows. Sketch this out a bit.

Yeah, I actually just went to the show at MSG on January 1st. I started going to Phish shows around 1993. I saw the Phish shirts at Dead shows and I was curious about the scene. One of my colleagues on Capitol Hill at the time had a relative who worked for Phish, and she would always score great tickets. Once I started going, I appreciated the sense of community, but I also appreciated how different the music was from Dead shows. As a Frank Zappa fan from a very early age, I saw and heard the Zappa influence that you never did get at a Grateful Dead show. It’s a very different style of music, but like with the Dead the audience and the scene feed the band and the energy. I really enjoy it.

Did you happen to check out any of the Dead & Co. shows when they hit the east coast last fall?

Yes, I caught them when they came through town at the Verizon Center. It was a very different experience than Fare Thee Well and I had a blast. John Mayer’s sound, clearly still developing in this new context, reminds me a bit of Jerry circa 1977, and the DC show was very rock n’ roll. Mayer is technically brilliant but with a very different approach than Trey took at the Chicago shows. Mayer and Bobby just kind of rocked out, and I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know much about Mayer except that he was a proficient blues guitarist, but I had no idea he was that good.

When did you really start diving into the vast Grateful Dead catalogue and what are your favorite eras?

I first stumbled on the early acoustic studio stuff and became obsessed with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. That early 70’s era was really interesting to me, but I didn’t really appreciate the broader catalogue until I started seeing live shows. I have four favorite periods: the Matrix era around 1968; 1977, when the band had become a really special, tight rock n’ roll unit; and I love 1989 and ’90. I also love the late stuff where Garcia was going though a fundamental transition in his playing, and I disagree with those who just don’t listen to 94 and 95; Jerry still had some great nights I really, really enjoyed.

So do you still travel to see bands, or pretty much stay in DC?

I will definitely still travel to see bands and of course learned that from the Grateful Dead tradition, and I just can’t seem to stop. I like smaller venues now, and really have gotten into Wilco, MMW, pretty much any real jazz, and I still try to see Bob Dylan two or three times a year. Dylan is a guy who just gets more interesting the crustier he gets – there’s more and more context to his great songs, and more experimentation with arrangements.

One of my favorite experiences was cosponsoring an event with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) featuring RatDog at the Fillmore in San Francisco, where I got to meet and hang out with John Perry Barlow. It was a blast and allowed my libertarian political views to actually cross over with an awesome Bobby show.

Let’s turn to politics: You’ve recently been heavily involved with Rand Paul, serving as a senior advisor to one of the SuperPACs supporting his presidential campaign. What’s your attraction to Rand Paul?

Rand is a unique politician certainly within the GOP in that he’s a consistent civil libertarian. He believes Republicans and Democrats alike should defend the entire Bill of Rights, not just the First Amendment when it’s convenient – and not just the Second Amendment; but the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Amendments as well. His work on privacy and against mass surveillance is important, and I actually got to join him in his lawsuit against the Obama Administration while I was still at FreedomWorks. Just his willingness to talk to people and groups who aren’t inherently inclined to listen to a Republican – like speaking at Berkeley — is brave and provocative.

I think he best understands where we as a people are today in terms of our political system.  Everything is disintermediated; the party bosses on both sides no longer get to tell voters what to think because we all choose things a la carte today; we don’t accept one size fits all packages labeled Republican or Democrat; we choose our issues, our affiliations and how we consume news through independent thought and determination. And I think that’s why we see more energy in the libertarian brand of Republicanism today because it’s an alternative that was never given any oxygen when party bosses were in control.

For me one of the most important issues is American foreign policy, and I think both Republicans and Democrats share the blame for creating chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere through too much interventionism and nation building. This presumption – you hear it from both Marco Rubio and Hillary Clinton, for instance – that U.S. politicians can somehow reorganize complex societies from the top down, has made the world an even more dangerous place. I believe Rand is the only one who really understands this phenomenon, both historically and practically.

What are your general thoughts on today’s Republican Party? Is the GOP heading off the rails?

I think Republicans have ignored what has been an obvious trend – the trend that has shifted power, information and knowledge back to the end user — the American voter. The GOP establishment ignored and vilified Ron Paul in 2008 and 2012, and ignored the Tea Party movement and a lot of the guys that got elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave. I believe the GOP hierarchy has helped give rise to Donald Trump by refusing to give all of these new people a seat at the table. At the same time, this is going on with the Democratic Party. Hillary should be the obvious choice, but decentralized politics is empowering young progressives to make different choices — and I think that’s where Sanders gets his energy. This is the new normal, and we’re quickly approaching an era in American politics where it’s not a ‘given’ that there’ll just be a Republican and Democrat in an election.

The rules are shifting so that the old criteria – name ID, money in the bank, and who you know in DC – are being replaced by a more decentralized grass roots set of criteria that allows insurgent candidates to self organize, raise money online, and communicate directly with voters. The net result is all of the chaos we see today, but it’s a better, more democratized version of politics that gives voters more choices and more power. I actually worked for Lee Atwater at the RNC a long, long time ago — and the only way to run a political party then was all top down: money and message — everything  — came only from party headquarters, and that’s how it was done. To a great extent the RNC, as well as the DNC — and all of the party committees for that matter — still try to work that way, but they’re all being dragged into a new reality.

Do you have any interesting new projects you’re pursuing post-FreedomWorks and post-Rand Paul?

I just launched a new organization along with my wife Terry and some former colleagues from FreedomWorks. It’s called Free the People (FreeThePeople.org), and we want meet the demands of the generation that instinctually curate ideas, information, music, and even politics, one click at a time. Free the People is definitely not a think tank; we are more interested in translating good ideas and shared values in the real time hurley-burley of pop culture. I am particularly interested in “transpartisan” issues that reach across traditional partisan tribal boundaries. So we will be defending free speech, fighting crony capitalism, working to end mandatory minimum sentences and the culture of mass incarceration, defending privacy, legalizing cannabis, and most important, the right of every one of us to choose our own destinies, as long as we don’t hurt other people or take their stuff. You know, “The entire Bill of Rights.” I’m stealing a page from Rand, so I have been speaking to libertarian, progressive and conservative audiences alike.

For a kid now in college or high school today thinking about getting into politics, how would you go about doing so, and starting to climb the ladder?

If you’re young and idealistic and want to change the world, and view Washington as this impenetrable place festering with special interests — as is indeed the case — the only answer is to show up, and to participate. When I was a kid, this was virtually impossible to do because information was extremely hard to come by, and 3 TV networks and a few newspapers of record rationed out information. Today you can go find things out for yourself as well as communicate broadly – all for free; you just need a wifi connection. John Perry Barlow calls this the “right to know” — but it still means that you have to go out there and engage in, and affect, the process. But it’s all at your fingertips. Show up and be part of the change you want.

I’m a student of non-violent social movements, and I’ve studied the civil rights movement and how Gandhi organized in India. Again, going back to the analogy of the Grateful Dead parking lot scene, it is amazing how organization and leadership can come organically from one person or a group that decides they’re going to create something — and that’s where real social change comes from. If you’re apathetic, you really have no right to complain about how corrupt the process is because, frankly, we’ve let it become that way. The future is coming from the bottom up, not from the top down – and in the end, that’s a very good development for everyone and for the cause of freedom.

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